You can’t just speak directly about God as though you know exactly what God is. Whenever we use a word, we are appealing to a reasonably agreed-upon connection between that word and something in the world. An apple, we can all agree, is a fruit that grows on a tree. Maybe you pictured a red on and I pictured a green one when I used the word, but we were both picturing things the other we agree are apples. Apples fit in your hand. We can recognize them easily.
Most words work like that. There is an object or action or quality in the world that we signify with a word. It’s not perfect, not a 100% solid system, but it’s the basis of communication; symbols that signify things commonly experienced.
But when we talk about God, especially about the nature of God, our words get slippery and falter, and the signification is far less direct. Jesus is talking today about the kingdom of heaven—three words we recognize that added together signify a thing beyond our comprehension.
The kingdom of heaven is not an object. It is not a country nearby, or even a bygone historical territory. Inasmuch as it is a kingdom, and the Greek here does translate to kingdom, it has a king. But we get lost when we try to compare God to any kings we experience in our kingdoms, and we also risk getting hung up on the masculinity of a king for whom neither male nor female are useful descriptors. God operates through an inversion of power as we know it, through compassion and weakness and hospitality. There is no reference point in our experience for the kingdom of heaven. It is an altogether foreign place. And also, it’s not a place. It’s an always inbreaking reality. Again, our words can only take us so far.
The kingdom of heaven also must involve heaven, something we think about an awful lot and know very little about. We today probably picture angels on clouds with harps, but there we are just repeating culturally pervasive imagery without much biblical basis.
The kingdom of heaven, as a term, is tremendously appealing, and also incredibly imprecise, because we don’t have an agreed-upon set of objects to anchor those words to. There aren’t words to describe the reality God is seeking to describe, because we can only use words to refer to things we know about. Jesus stands astride the gap between the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the limits of our language. So Jesus turns to metaphor, using known imagery to evoke some truth about God’s kingdom.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Farmers hated mustard plants. They were undesirable weeds. How much mustard do you think people really needed anyway. So for all of it’s glorious shrubbiness from such a small seed, it is hardly a blessing. And yet it bursts through and offers homes for the birds, a piece of beauty if you look at it right, but not quite what you had wanted, either.
It’s like yeast, which leavened bread. Understanding that yeast are individual fungi (and bacteria too, if you’re talking wild fermentation, which we almost certainly are, is a very recent historical phenomenon. You have to have a microscope to see yeast. So for most of history, the leavening of bread and fermentation of wine and beer were processes with a great element of mystery. They were predictable, and people knew what they were doing, but I’ve read of breweries where great reverence was taken for the spirits in the place, which were responsible for the fermentation. And so again, the kingdom of heaven is not entirely understood in its substance, but by its effects. It leavens and lifts and enlivens, while remaining itself a mystery.
The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field, which compels the one who found and hid it to buy the field. Again, this small part of the scene, the treasure, has the ability to transform what is around it, to raise the value of the land itself.
Or a merchant. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who sells all he has to buy one particular one. It doesn’t just expand things, it also pours all of its value into each part of itself. Each speck of the kingdom carries the full value of the kingdom, just as each part of the universe greets the full presence of God.
The kingdom is like a net that gathers fish, which are judged by the fishermen. The kingdom is comprehensive, but not uncritical. It is not passive, and while each part of it is infinitely valuable, it also radiates its influence and purifies all within it.
In other words, the kingdom of heaven is transformation. It subjects every part of the world to its evaluation and redistribution of what is precious and sacred. It not only build up new things, but also tears down and casts out old things that cannot accomodate it.
The disciples said that they understood, but I’m thinking they wanted to look like good students. This is a lot of metaphors stacked on top of one another, moving in different directions, with the clarity and harsh reality of judgment at the end. I’m pretty sure I don’t understand, but I feel it moving.
I may not be able to tell you exactly what the kingdom of heaven is, and I sure couldn’t give you a technical description, but there is so much potential energy in all of these metaphors, that you can almost feel the creation bursting at the seams. The seed and the yeast unlock energy in the elements around them, producing outsized results. The treasure and the pearl seem to bend reality to their contours, releasing the accumulated wealth of lifetimes to have just this one thing. The net raises the teeming life of the sea to our sight, makes it visible and tangible.
I invite you then, to try encountering the world as potential, as energy pent up and awaiting the freedom of the kingdom of heaven. It’s glorious to imagine God turning all of this inside out and upside down and revealing glories within it that we don’t even know how to dream about.
And notice, as you see the world as potential, that the world as it is right now, looks more beautiful. If, as Paul said, the creation groans with labor pains carrying forth the new life of the kingdom of heaven, we also see a dynamism in it, and we begin to see real value that we had overlooked. Beneath the surface of life, or in the little corners where we hardly ever look, a new world is constantly surging forward. May we, following Jesus, nurture the things that are even now becoming real.